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Mountain Skills: The Importance of Higher Ed

It’s no secret that even good things go stale—from relationships to that loaf of bread you forgot about in your cupboard. The same applies to our understanding of avalanches: how we analyze and approach them has changed dramatically over time. For this reason, you’re not just responsible for updating your beacon every few years; you have to update your knowledge as well. And while taking classes and courses is imperative, here’s a quick rundown of changes in avy knowledge.

Sarah Carpenter measures slope angle. [Photo] Courtesy American Avalanche INstitute

Sarah Carpenter measures slope angle. [Photo] Courtesy American Avalanche Institute

Then

Ten years ago, avalanche courses spent most of the in-the-field time standing in snowpits. Instructors would identify facets and rounds, do a shovel shear test and a couple of compression tests and then attempt to extrapolate that information to make a decision on where to travel in the backcountry.

Now

Flash-forward to avalanche courses in 2016 and 2017—we still dig in the snow, learn about the compression test and discuss where to travel in the backcountry, but this isn’t the focus of the course. Current research shows that more often than not, problems with group dynamics contribute to more avalanche accidents than the surprise layer of buried facets.

Don Sharaf and John Fitzgerald work together on digging an efficient pit. [Photo] Courtesy American Avalanche Institute

Don Sharaf and John Fitzgerald work together on digging an efficient pit. [Photo] Courtesy American Avalanche Institute

Courses spend time discussing how to build a team and effectively communicate as a group, and instructors discuss route planning and avalanche problems before taking a group into the backcountry. The use of current and previous conditions are important to identifying terrain that is appropriate for the day and terrain that is off limits. All of this is covered before modern school groups even put ski boots on.

Courses today spend a lot of time building and practicing a system for sorting information. There is still a lot of vocabulary and concepts being presented in the classroom, but the focus of avalanche education is shifting more toward building systems and processes for communication and decision-making in the field. The goal of the modern course is not to overwhelm students, but to inform people and give them the tools to prioritize the limitless data gathered online and outdoors.

Stay Relevant

Take a course and advance your knowledge. Then, take the next level course. There are tools in each course for recreationists and professionals alike. If it’s been a while since your last course, take a refresher course. Many of these programs only span a weekend and are not a huge time commitment. The goal is to build on the information that you learned in your first course and to introduce the most current research and systems into your repertoire.

A level 1 avalanche course practices digging snowpits. [Photo] Courtesy American Avalanche Institute

A level 1 avalanche course practices digging snowpits. [Photo] Courtesy American Avalanche Institute

Attend a SAW (Snow and Avalanche Workshop). There are snow and avalanche workshops throughout the U.S. in the fall and early winter. Check with your local forecast center for dates and locations and spend the day getting current.

Go online to find courses as well as countless video resources. Take advantage of these resources and brush off the cobwebs from a snowless summer. Review route planning before you get out on your first tour. Use videos to remind you what to pack in your backcountry backpack.

Bottom line: The avalanche education that you received 15 years ago was good, but take the time to add to your knowledge base. Learn new tips and tricks for gathering and prioritizing information. Get up to speed with the latest technology and understand the new stability tests. Brush up on your CPR training. Your avalanche course is not good for life.

Sarah Carpenter is the co-owner of the American Avalanche Institute and an AMGA-certified ski guide. Her first job out of college was ski patrolling at Bridger Bowl, Mont., and she’s been working in the snow and avalanche industry ever since as a patroller, ski guide and avalanche educator.

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